A new hanging of Clyfford Still’s work, co-curated by a cohort of young children, presents not just boring grown-up things at Denver’s Clyfford Still Museum.
Clyfford Still, Art, and the Young Mind
March 11–August 7, 2022
Clyfford Still Museum, Denver
At the entrance to the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, a museum attendant approached my two children—five-year-old Signe and four-year-old Olle—and immediately deputized them into service as “Art Protectors.” The attendant gave them each a sticker “badge” and explained why the paintings needed protection from people who would try to touch them. The “don’t touch” obligation thus transformed into a kind of heroic duty—my kids were galvanized by their newfound mission to protect the paintings from harm and set off into the museum.
I had already conscripted my children into service as collaborators in the writing of this review of Clyfford Still, Art, and the Young Mind, an exhibition curated in collaboration with young children—perhaps the first of its kind. It is also the first exhibition that the Clyfford Still Museum, which opened in 2011 and holds nearly all of the works created by the famed 20th-century Abstract Expressionist, has curated in collaboration with the community, in an attempt to refresh and reassess this single-artist collection from a new perspective. I let my kids lead the way, and we breezed through the galleries at what was, to me, a breakneck speed.
Each gallery is organized around a theme corresponding to research on the aesthetic preferences of children, with works chosen by different age groups of children from schools across the Front Range. The first gallery is devoted to high-contrast paintings, selected by infants, who are shown in a video in the gallery grasping at prints of their preferred paintings. Signe immediately set about sketching one of the paintings in an activity book provided by the museum.
The next gallery is devoted to the idea of scale, with one wall taken up by an enormous painting from 1951, PH-247, nicknamed Big Blue. Signe remarked that the colors reminded her of an ocean, with the bar of black “like oil spilling in the ocean and that tiny bit of orange would be the land, and it’s really tiny.” That the orientation of the painting, with its bars of color painted vertically rather than horizontally, upsets the conventions of a landscape didn’t seem to matter to her.
“Follow me! It’s this dark part!” Olle cried from the next gallery. He led us to a darkened room with a series of lightboxes set up on the floor, with colored gels, fabrics, and other materials available for arranging in compositions viewable as projections on the opposite wall. They both spent some time interacting with the different materials, mostly accumulating them on the lightboxes and draping fabrics on their bodies.
We continued on with the interactive activities in the Making Space, revamped and stocked with high-quality crafting materials—tempera paint pens, colored tape, construction paper, foam stickers, and all varieties of markers and crayons. This hands-on experience kept their attention the longest; they would have stayed and painted all day.
Signe said of the experience, “The art-making space, I liked that a lot. I liked all the other drawings other people made. I also like because we got to do them. I never even knew we were going to do that. Usually other museums don’t let other kids do that. It was not just boring grown-up things. It felt really good to have that.” Olle concurred, saying, “The craft room was my favorite because it had paint sticks.”
The next gallery was devoted to early representational works by Still, along with reproductions of archival photographs of cars and airplanes, curated by second-graders. Olle appreciated some of these representations of vehicles and the paintings of farm animals. Signe, viewing the portraits, noticed, “There’s lots of grandmas and grandpas.”
The final gallery, devoted to color, was by far everyone’s favorite. Seven large-scale abstract paintings were arranged in a deeply satisfying, rainbow sequence according to each painting’s predominant color. Signe was drawn to the blue painting, PH-923 (1974), pointed to different parts of it, and said, “This looks like the world to me, and we’re up in the sky looking down at the world. This would be South America, and that would be Colorado, this would be the North Pole.” Olle preferred the last painting, PH-260 (1962), comprised of swaths of black, violet, and red, “because it’s the biggest.”
Signe enthused, “I feel like I’m in the rainbow!” Olle quipped, “Do you know what’s at the end of the rainbow? I’ll tell ya. A pot o’ gold!”
Later, I asked my pint-size art critics if they had any constructive criticism to offer from their experience at the museum. Signe suggested more involved hands-on activities so visitors could try creating the same type of large-scale Abstract Expressionist paintings that Still made. “If there were more painting rooms, you could also use some of his supplies to do some of the hard paintings,” she said. “I’d just get all messy! Do you know what I would do? I would just scoop some [paint] up and just throw it! And then I could just make my own art.”
Olle, on the other hand, was entirely satisfied by the exhibition and had no recommendations for improvement. He said, “No, I thought it was just right. The colors made me happy.”
Clyfford Still, Art, and the Young Mind continues through August 7, 2022 at the Clyfford Still Museum, 1250 Bannock Street in Denver.